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U.S. officials: No daylight between Medvedev and Putin on nuke treaty

During the most contentious moments of the U.S.-Russian negotiations over a new nuclear treaty, it often seemed as if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working at cross purposes. Putin would make some public statements, usually about U.S. missile defense plans, that seemed to go far beyond what Medvedev and President ...

MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images
MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images

During the most contentious moments of the U.S.-Russian negotiations over a new nuclear treaty, it often seemed as if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working at cross purposes.

Putin would make some public statements, usually about U.S. missile defense plans, that seemed to go far beyond what Medvedev and President Obama were saying publicly about how the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would deal with the issue, leading to the view in Washington that Putin was playing the role of the spoiler.

Not so, according to two senior administration officials, who said that the negotiations changed the way the Obama White House viewed the roles of Medvedev and Putin.

"What we learned through this negotiation was that the policy coordination on their side between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin was very closely done and in perfect lockstep every step of the way," said one official. "He was saying exactly what President Medvedev was saying to us in private. There was not daylight between them; they did things pretty closely coordinated."

The Kremlinology going on inside the White House shows both how opaque the Russian system is and why the new treaty was so important to the Obama administration, which remains unsure of Russia’s troubled path from autocracy to pseudo-democracy.

"Russia is a pretty volatile place politically," another official said. "Who runs that country 10 years from now and what their foreign-policy views are, we may not be in a reset mode. So the things we can do to maintain transparency now is a hedge against those kinds of outcomes in the future."

Overall, it was the personal involvement of Medvedev and Obama that pushed the negotiations past difficult roadblocks at several stages, they said.

"The chief negotiator and the person who really got this treaty done was President Obama," one official said, pointing to over half a dozen phone calls between Obama and Medvedev at crucial moments. "The big moves in the negotiation were always done by the two of them."

For example, during one round of talks on Feb. 24, Obama took a hard stand against Russian attempts to have language regarding U.S. missile defense in the treaty, which would be a nonstarter for many Senate Republicans whose support will be needed for ratification.

"In a very tough phone call, he just said to President Medvedev, ‘If you want this, we have to walk away from this treaty, we can’t do it this way,’" one official remembered. "It was a pretty dramatic moment, but in retrospect, we now know that because Obama was so firm in that phone call, we got some motion in Geneva [where the text of the treaty was being negotiated] from that moment on."

When the two presidents spoke on March 26, when the treaty was finally complete, Medvedev began his call by saying in English, "If you want to get something done right, do it yourself." Obama replied, "Yeah, we were the ones who did it."

The administration officials also spelled out in detail how the new treaty will deal with the thorny missile-defense issue. There will be one line in the preamble of the treaty acknowledging that there is a connection between offensive and defensive weapons, and that’s it.

There "could" be unilateral statements by each side about missile defense, the officials said, as if they weren’t sure.

"If they were done, what would happen is the Russians would recognize that if the United States missile defense capabilities grew to such an extent that it would undermine strategic stability, they would have the right to withdraw from the treaty," one official said.

"If they did release such a unilateral statement, we would issue our unilateral statement that would say our missile defenses aren’t aimed against Russia and are not intended to undermine strategic stability, but we are going to do them in cooperation with our allies irrespective of what the Russian unilateral statement says."

During the most contentious moments of the U.S.-Russian negotiations over a new nuclear treaty, it often seemed as if Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working at cross purposes.

Putin would make some public statements, usually about U.S. missile defense plans, that seemed to go far beyond what Medvedev and President Obama were saying publicly about how the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty would deal with the issue, leading to the view in Washington that Putin was playing the role of the spoiler.

Not so, according to two senior administration officials, who said that the negotiations changed the way the Obama White House viewed the roles of Medvedev and Putin.

"What we learned through this negotiation was that the policy coordination on their side between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin was very closely done and in perfect lockstep every step of the way," said one official. "He was saying exactly what President Medvedev was saying to us in private. There was not daylight between them; they did things pretty closely coordinated."

The Kremlinology going on inside the White House shows both how opaque the Russian system is and why the new treaty was so important to the Obama administration, which remains unsure of Russia’s troubled path from autocracy to pseudo-democracy.

"Russia is a pretty volatile place politically," another official said. "Who runs that country 10 years from now and what their foreign-policy views are, we may not be in a reset mode. So the things we can do to maintain transparency now is a hedge against those kinds of outcomes in the future."

Overall, it was the personal involvement of Medvedev and Obama that pushed the negotiations past difficult roadblocks at several stages, they said.

"The chief negotiator and the person who really got this treaty done was President Obama," one official said, pointing to over half a dozen phone calls between Obama and Medvedev at crucial moments. "The big moves in the negotiation were always done by the two of them."

For example, during one round of talks on Feb. 24, Obama took a hard stand against Russian attempts to have language regarding U.S. missile defense in the treaty, which would be a nonstarter for many Senate Republicans whose support will be needed for ratification.

"In a very tough phone call, he just said to President Medvedev, ‘If you want this, we have to walk away from this treaty, we can’t do it this way,’" one official remembered. "It was a pretty dramatic moment, but in retrospect, we now know that because Obama was so firm in that phone call, we got some motion in Geneva [where the text of the treaty was being negotiated] from that moment on."

When the two presidents spoke on March 26, when the treaty was finally complete, Medvedev began his call by saying in English, "If you want to get something done right, do it yourself." Obama replied, "Yeah, we were the ones who did it."

The administration officials also spelled out in detail how the new treaty will deal with the thorny missile-defense issue. There will be one line in the preamble of the treaty acknowledging that there is a connection between offensive and defensive weapons, and that’s it.

There "could" be unilateral statements by each side about missile defense, the officials said, as if they weren’t sure.

"If they were done, what would happen is the Russians would recognize that if the United States missile defense capabilities grew to such an extent that it would undermine strategic stability, they would have the right to withdraw from the treaty," one official said.

"If they did release such a unilateral statement, we would issue our unilateral statement that would say our missile defenses aren’t aimed against Russia and are not intended to undermine strategic stability, but we are going to do them in cooperation with our allies irrespective of what the Russian unilateral statement says."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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